Academies

Orphan school’s 11-year wait for sponsor (should) end next month

Official admits intervention in failing schools is too slow

Official admits intervention in failing schools is too slow

22 Apr 2022, 15:00

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An “orphan” school left waiting 11 years for a sponsor is due to become an academy next month, as its deficit balloons to £6.3 million.

A top civil servant this week admitted that intervention in failing schools was too slow, revealing the government has a six-month target for transferring failing academies to stronger trusts.

Yet Hanson School in Bradford (pictured) is one of 44 “inadequate” schools currently waiting longer than six months to become academies, raising fresh questions about maintained schools being left behind.

While conversions for maintained schools typically take longer than transfers of failing academies, 29 ‘inadequate’ maintained schools have been waiting at least three years to be taken over by a trust.

Ministers outlined plans last month for all schools to join “strong” academy trusts by 2030. But Howard Stephenson, a professor of education at Nottingham University, said orphan schools “won’t be easy wins to improve”.

He said they were an “absolutely predictable” consequence of a competition-based system, with “markets encouraging cherry-picking”.

Five education secretaries have moved on since Hanson School was rated “inadequate” in 2010.

Academising such schools is a flagship Conservative policy, but three sponsors who expressed interest walked away.

PFI issues complicate academy transfer plans

Delta Academies Trust is now set to take the school on. A spokesperson said it was “working very hard” towards a May 1 launch – but warned private finance initiative issues made transfers “complex”.

PFI building and maintenance deals at Hanson and other schools have bedevilled many conversion plans over the past decade. It also faced legal issues involving on-site leisure providers.

But a Bradford council spokesperson said it has now resolved a “costly contract” by agreeing an exit settlement. This payout is a “large part” of a forecast £1.5 million increase in Hanson’s deficit to £6.3 million. Councils have to foot such bills on conversion.

Hanson is one of 44 current conversion projects taking at least six months. DfE data shows 28 do not have planned sponsors, including 18 left in limbo for at least three years.

Sponsored conversion timescales were slowing even before Covid, taking 13.5 months in 2019.  Conversion numbers sank to one a month in late 2021, a record low – with Covid derailing inspections and delaying some ongoing transfers.

Andrew McCully, the Department for Education’s schools director general, disclosed the “five to six-month” target to rebroker academies under questioning this week by the education select committee.

Intervention times ‘not good enough’

He admitted transfer times were “not good enough”, but said white paper plans for tougher intervention in trusts would transform failing academies faster.

Yet it is unclear what, if any, such targets apply for “inadequate” maintained school conversions. The proposed reform will not help fix the longstanding issue of “orphan” maintained schools unwanted by sponsors.

Plans to mandate double “requires improvement” school conversions too will also increase demand for sponsors, and experts say takeover funding for trusts is insufficient.

The white paper itself acknowledged the government had not “systematically supported” strong trust growth, or “adequately incentivised” expansion in areas requiring them most.

Stephenson suggested ministers’ wariness about mandating full academisation could show they “needed councils to work with schools academies didn’t want”. Now the government plans to allow some council-run trusts.

A DfE spokesperson said it was pleased Delta had been chosen, even if conversion had taken “longer than we would have liked”. The delay is not reflective of the wider conversion process, they added.

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